Following the previously published survey conducted on the experiences of 166 architectural assistants and junior staff, the Future Architects Front (FAF) has written an Open Letter to RIBA, demanding change. Calling the young practitioners to action, FAF shared the following statement:
‘Unethical business conduct has been a decades-long problem in the field of architecture and has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns. In the wake of these events, it is important for those of us in the early stages of our careers to think critically about our own position in the industry. For many architectural assistants, the lack of support and the dearth of opportunity during this pandemic has demonstrated what we have long suspected: the current pathway to qualifying as an architect is dysfunctional and exploitative.
As young practitioners yourselves, we would encourage you to read and sign the RIBA Open Letter written by the Future Architects Front. This letter calls for RIBA to finally address the exploitative state of the profession and implement change according to five demands which have been formulated through surveying the experiences of 166 architectural assistants and junior staff. Grassroots change is not something we witness often in the field of architecture, but it is certainly something we believe is possible and necessary for a more equitable professional future.’
The Open Letter:
To the Senior Management of the Royal Institute of British Architects,
We, the architectural assistants who are currently practicing or have practiced in the UK, are writing to draw attention to the experiences of exploitation and lack of faith in the current state of professional architectural practice. This letter outlines these experiences in detail, includes a breakdown of survey data, and outlines a list of demands which we call for RIBA to immediately respond to.
Unethical business conduct has been a decades long problem in the field of architecture, and has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns. In the wake of these events, it is important for those of us in the early stages of our careers to think critically about our own position in the industry. For many architectural assistants, the lack of support and the dearth of opportunity during this pandemic has demonstrated what we have long suspected: the current pathway to qualifying as an architect is dysfunctional and exploitative. In this letter, we will highlight a number of clearly observable ways in which the position of ‘architectural assistant’ allows practices to exploit their junior staff and limit the opportunities of those who need them most.
According to RIBA, architectural assistants are categorised as “architectural students employed within practice”, this definition however, is not enforced in any meaningful way. A glaring issue in contemporary architectural employment is the propensity for practices to hire only “experienced architectural assistants”. Not only does this present an inherent contradiction, since architectural assistants work in practice to gain experience, but it disrupts the pathway to qualification and serves to pose further obstacles in an already complex and bureaucratic process. When students are encouraged to remain in the position of architectural assistant, practices are enabled to exploit architectural students, paying them entry-level wages despite years of experience. Currently, the profession offers bleak prospects to architectural graduates in an already struggling job market. An economic dearth of opportunity is exacerbated by a flawed pathway to qualification that is trapping graduates in a state of limbo.
In the face of such challenges, many architectural assistants feel that they are lucky to be afforded any opportunity in practice. This further enables a culture of exploitation during employment. Due to a lack of job security, architectural assistants are particularly vulnerable to professional exploitation with unpaid overtime a norm in professional practice, salaries below living wage, and discrimination on the basis of gender and ethnicity at all levels of the profession. New mechanisms must be put into place to empower junior architectural staff to make their voices heard without fear of reprisal in a professional environment where vast power imbalances between senior and junior staff are considered acceptable “studio culture”.
In December 2020, we conducted a survey which gathered over 150 experiences of architectural assistants and junior staff in practice. The results were an overwhelming condemnation of the current state of architectural education and the path to qualification:
30th January 2021
In light of this data, and over 100 personal accounts of architectural assistants in practice documented in the appendix of this letter, we demand RIBA addresses the systemic issues in the profession and commits to the following:
End unpaid overtime in all RIBA chartered practices.
All architectural employees at all levels should be paid for every hour worked.
Provide effective oversight on the Architectural Assistant role.
RIBA must regulate how practices employ Architectural Assistants. Students must not be trapped in entry level positions beyond the time necessary for them to fully qualify. Architectural Assistants must not be employed in precarious freelance positions.
Greater transparency in the RIBA’s budget and spending decisions.
RIBA should demonstrate its values and commitments through the accessible publication of budget and spending reports.
Establish a more representative governing body.
RIBA’s boards and councils should be representative of its membership. Greater diversity in age, gender, and ethnicity are essential.
Accountability for exploitative work environments.
RIBA must work with the ARB to introduce mechanisms that hold practices accountable for their professional environments. Employees must feel empowered to demand justice in the face of exploitation and discrimination.